Leaked BGU report: Part of broader assault on academic freedom

Read excerpts from the report obtained by +972 Magazine.

The leaked report of a committee appointed by Israel’s Council for Higher Education (CHE), assessing Ben Gurion University’s Department of Politics and Government, is an anomaly compared to other reports, if not an outright, government-sponsored politicized mission against an academic department that has no precedent.

I repeat my full disclosure that I teach as an adjunct lecturer at this department.

Although the process of evaluation is an established routine (which I explain below), this report must be seen in a dire context of academic persecution that has been led largely by two NGOs. In 2008, one of them, Im Tirtzu, issued a report providing a political assessment of the levels of Zionism in Israeli universities, concluding a strong anti-Zionist bias – and legitimizing the notion of political thought-monitoring in Israel’s universities; another report was released in 2010. In August 2010, the Institute for Zionist Strategies, headed by extremist settler Israel Harel, published a similar report, assessing courses and syllabi and directly accusing Tel Aviv University and Ben Gurion of anti-Zionist bias in their programs.

In the wake of this report, the head of Tel Aviv University asked faculty to review their syllabi, although he later retracted. A few weeks later, Im Tirtzu sent a brazen ultimatum to Ben Gurion University, demanding that it reform the department or, it threatened, the group would lobby foreign donors to cut off their funds. Gidon Saar, Education Minister, meanwhile had established his full-on support for Im Tirtzu. He attended a conference the group held, and told its members: “you will be blessed…I very much appreciate this work…[which] is much needed on our campuses…I came to tell you: Godspeed.” His later reservations about the group’s threat-tactics hardly cancel out this support.

Further, these campaigns appear within a general environment of legitimacy for anti-democratic legislation, designed to curtail press, civil society, the judicial system, and civil rights.

The academic review itself is part of a regular evaluation process that has existed since 2003, in which an external committee appointed by CHE assesses various academic fields each year. The process begins with an internal self-assessment report provided to the committee, which then visits each school and writes a report then presented to CHE for discussion.

To date, 23 different academic disciplines have undergone a review, in roughly five institutions each, and they are available in English.

The evaluation of Political Science and International Relations was to have been conducted in the academic year 2008/2009, when Professor Yuli Tamir of Labor was Education Minister. But the current committee was appointed in November 2010 by Likud Minister Gidon Saar, well after his connections with Im Tirtzu had been established. It is not clear why the evaluation was not conducted in 2008.

After doing a spot check by reading through several other reports (but not all, given the volume of material) this report seems unprecedented in various ways: Every report contains criticisms of the professional and academic aspects of each department, more or less severe or urgent. I was unable to locate a report that recommended shutting down the department.

If these changes are nevertheless not implemented, the majority of the committee believes that, as a last resort, Ben Gurion University should consider closing the Department of Politics and Government.

  • I was unable to find a report in any other field (I looked especially in the humanities – such as History, or Middle East studies) that says a word about political balance or bias.

…Is there a balance of views in the curriculum and the classroom?  Particularly, political science instructors should see to it that their own opinions are expressed as personal views so that students can take a critical perspective and that there is a broad exposure to alternative perspectives in order to widen and deepen their own understanding.

  • The leak and sensationalized news coverage of the report before it has been presented to the CHE smacks of a highly calculated PR campaign in the context of a full-out political onslaught against this department.

Recommendation: Shut down ‘leftist’ department” – Council for Higher Education committee says Ben Gurion University’s Politics Department politically biased.

  • No other report I found had a dissenting minority opinion that caused one of its members to repudiate the report itself.

Minority Opinion by Prof. Galia Golan: I agree with most everything in the Report with the exception of the section of the report on the Mission plus the two Recommendations emanating from this…There is also a reference to “balance [of views]…in the classroom.”  I am not certain who or how a “balance” might be determined, but I believe that such a demand runs directly counter to the principle of academic freedom, a basic principle of university education…I cannot agree with the recommendations that refer to “broad exposure to perspectives and alternatives” and “an effort that the program is perceived as balanced by the community concerned.”

Finally, one part of the report that somehow failed to appear in the Yediot story emphasized repeatedly that the faculty stress critical thinking, and the students are fully aware of this:

[students] were attracted to the Department because of its emphasis on activism…There was agreement that the courses emphasized critical thinking and activism.. They said that the political orientation of the faculty and of the courses was clear but that one was free to go to other courses and that students were encouraged to be critical even of the lecturers.